Injury, parenthood, age. What happens to the bravery we used to have after life happens to us? Is it possible to get it back?

I used to be brave. Bravery was terrifying. My heart racing, my muscles gripping, consumed by that awful, beautiful, unbearable tension in the chest. Deep breath in through the nose. Slow, shaking exhale through the mouth. The primal brain screaming No No NO! But the higher brain laser-focused.

And then the moment of truth: do it or return to safety? The moment where bravery wins and fear loses. At that moment I would be so scared but I would do it anyway. I would pull the trigger and go. At least I used to, because I used to be brave. 

But I can’t force myself to do it anymore.

big wave surfing
The biggest wave I’ve ridden since having a baby. Somehow everything is so much scarier now.

Bravery on Big Waves

Right now Waimea Bay at my home in Hawaii is perfect. Just a short five-minute drive away from epic big wave surfing. But I’m not there. I’m here in front of a screen, racking my brain. A few years ago I wrote a post about how to overcome fear in surfing. Just recently it’s been making its way around social media again. I went back and reread it. I was so damn brave back then! What happened to me?

Check out our guide to surfing the North Shore of Oahu

Last week it was Sunset Beach. As I paddled out, I saw an eight to ten-foot Hawaiian wave break out the back (a fifteen to twenty-foot face). The man on the wave seemed to descend down its face forever. And when that old familiar anxiety gripped my chest, I froze. I used to love that feeling. Now it felt paralyzing. I forced myself to sit in position. I controlled my breath. I visualized. I tried all the old tricks. But I couldn’t get myself to paddle for a set wave. I paddled inside a bit to try for a smaller wave. As I waited, soon enough the worst-case scenario presented itself. I could not escape the infamous Sunset Beach sneaker set and had to wear three massive set waves on the head, praying to my leash not to snap.

I wasn’t Brave enough. I wasn’t as brave as I used to be. I used to go on those waves, sometimes falling and sometimes now. But always brave.

I was scared. But I went back to my position in the lineup. I wanted to go to the beach, but I stayed out. A few moments later I just barely escaped two more sets on the head, scratching for the horizon to save my life. I wasn’t up for it. No matter how brave I was on that day, I could not find the bravery to put my head down, dig deep, and paddle for a wave. I wasn’t brave enough. I wasn’t as brave as I used to be. I used to go on those waves, sometimes falling and sometimes not. But always brave.

Girl surfing on pink surfboard
This wave in Panama felt enormous. I was shocked when I saw how much smaller it was in the picture than in my mind. It took me over an hour to get that wave.

Surfing after Becoming a Mom

Maybe I know more now than I did back then. I’ve become a wiser surfer. I know the pain of injury that comes from a miscalculation in this kind of calculated risk – five herniated disks. I know the eyes of my one-year-old son as he screams with separation anxiety, begging me not to leave him each time I paddle out. I go anyway. Knowing I’ll be back to him in a couple of hours and everything will be okay. But what if it’s not? Maybe it’s not that I’m less brave. Maybe now I have more to fear and therefore, need even more bravery.

Maybe I’m just as brave as I’ve always been but now there is more to lose? I noticed it first when I was surfing in the last couple of months of my pregnancy. Before I really didn’t care if something happened to me. Now even the thought of my son not having his mother, or not being able to hold my son or walk the beach with him every morning… I can’t even go there. 

I felt like I belonged to a club. I thought people admired me. I felt like I mattered. And if I wanted to keep mattering I had to keep surfing big.

Surfing for the Love of it, or for the Accolades?

Or maybe I’ve lost the motivation. Maybe before my bravery, came from the deepest need we all share – the need for love and acceptance. I admit it. Before I became a mother, a part of the motivation to surf such big waves was the photos. The likes. The hoots. The pats on the shoulder. The guys who recognized me when I showed up to the beach. I felt like I belonged to a club. I thought people admired me. I felt like I mattered. And if I wanted to keep mattering I had to keep surfing big. But motherhood changed a lot of that. Now I’m loved by my son and my partner and I don’t really care what anyone else thinks. Now I know the power of the female body and understand my worth is intrinsic. I matter because all of us matter.

mom and baby on the beach
So many of the hours I used to spend surfing are now spent on the beach with this guy.

Part of my ego has died with motherhood. Motherhood is not glamorous. It doesn’t look sexy on Instagram. My world is so small now. In motherhood, there isn’t time or energy to maintain my status in a social circle.  And I don’t care. But many of us moms can honestly say we don’t give a damn about that. I’m so consumed by this little human that nothing else seems all that important. Image and ego really don’t have much space in motherhood. 

Surfing Because I Can’t Not

But… I’m scared I’ll lose myself to motherhood. I’m scared I’ll stop being me. Yes, a part of the reason I surfed bigger waves was superficial, and thus a part of my motivation has died. But another part of Big Wave Surfer Melanie’s motivation was simply honoring the truth of who I was born to be: a risk taker, a pioneer, an explorer, and a little crazy. If I stop being those things then the fear wins. Then I am truly not brave. 

In all honesty, I don’t surf nearly as much as I used to. There just isn’t time or energy. I wake up on average about ten times per night because the baby is an awful sleeper. I’m constantly exhausted. So those might be legitimate reasons to exercise more caution while surfing. But when I do make the time to surf, I sometimes find myself kicking myself for not going on waves I probably would have made. I’m reminded of something a surf coach said to me once. “Mel, you didn’t change your entire life, move all the way to the middle of the pacific ocean, just to not go on the wave!”

hiking with a baby
Getting in shape hasn’t been a problem postpartum. But getting in surf shape is different.

I know I sure as shit didn’t pay a babysitter, forfeit an afternoon nap after a year and half of sleep deprivation, and paddle all the way out to the break with my exhausted mom arms, to not go on the wave.

Surfing Big Waves Again

I’m finishing up this article after starting to write it last month (because my opportunities to write are so rare now). In an hour or so I’ll be joining Hawaii’s best female big wave surfers for a ceremony blessing a big wave contest sponsored by Red Bull. This year I’m a contestant. When the opportunity presented itself to join this year’s “Red Bull Magnitude” contest I knew I had to do it. Not for Instagram, or for pats on the back, but for my son. He needs a fully alive mom. I used to be brave. I still am.

Red Bull Magnitude Opening Ceremony
The opening ceremony for Red Bull Magnitude. I’m the last one on the right and the little photo bomber is my kid who couldn’t stand that I was over 20 feet away.

Stay tuned. I’ll continue to update as I surf this winter. The Red Bull Magnitude contest runs from December 1-Feb 28 and is judged on video entries submitted during that time period. To be honest, I’m so freaking scared. But I’m doing it anyway.

At the opening ceremony of Red Bull Magnitude with my little boy.
I am a writer and wanna-be big wave surfer. Surfing is my muse. I write about it and how it’s teaching me to live better. I hold certification as a nutritionist, personal trainer, yoga instructor, and lifeguard instructor. My story “100 Days in Mexico” of how a solo road trip surfing my way through Mexico changed my life can be found here www.melanielainewilliams.com

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